The strongest X-Men films tend to be the ones that favor a more personal perspective rather than an ensemble edge. On this point, Dark Phoenix was on the right track by putting most of the focus on Jean Grey and her unstable psychic powers. But much like its tortured hero, this film struggles in trying to balance a poignant feminist theme alongside the mutant melodrama and explosive theatrics. Just as Jean whispers to herself for quiet to control her abilities, I found myself wishing the film would take a few moments to slow down and lets its potential simmer better.
Building on the previous prequel films, this fourth entry skips ahead to another decade and takes place in 1992, with the remaining mutants looking surprisingly young for having a 40-year career in superheroism. The few women of the collective are not happy with how Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has been overseeing his X-Men squad, and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) senses deep flaws in Xavier’s PR campaign for mutants—flaws that will go mostly unacknowledged. She’s extra infuriated that Jean (Sophie Turner) seems to be the most powerful of the lot considering how crucial she was to a space mission.
But Raven’s worries are not just an excuse to go dashing back to the militant mutant ideals of Magneto (Michael Fassbender), as she soon discovers a dark secret. But that secret won’t arise until a new alien force happens upon Earth and infests Jean’s psyche, making her even more of a dangerous threat. There’s some great drama here, with Jean feeling betrayed and lied to by everyone around her, literally pushing the other mutants away with her powers. It’s just a shame that because there’s also a secret threat of invading aliens, led by a mostly quiet Jessica Chastain, these fiery emotions don’t have time to be explored past simplistic delivery.
This film, which clocks in at under two hours and doesn’t introduce many new mutants, has a major aversion to letting anything evolve organically. There’s not a free moment to showcase the romance between Jean and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), the troubling affections between Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Raven, or Charles’s deeply buried regret over past actions that he can’t bring himself to share. Perhaps the dullest is the all-too-familiar motivations of Magneto, so easy to turn from peaceful hermit to powerful supervillain with yet another dose of pathos to get him to slap that evil helmet back on his cranium. There’s also so little time for such additions as the fast Peter “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Evan Peters) that there’s no time for his signature time-slowing goofiness.
A movie with such stumbling writing as Raven boiling down Charles’s ineffectiveness as a leader to a zinger about calling the team the X-Women needs an extra dose of feminism fire to really make that female revenge story shine better. Jean’s path of uncertain ambition could have been a wicked cross of Carrie meets Akira, but perhaps such horror elements don’t have much of a place in a PG-13 franchise film. Since we don’t get that level of terror, all Dark Phoenix has to offer is a series of action sequences that are superb in their construction but not in their emotion. One stunning sequence on a train will, I’m certain, will excuse the film as passable for many, though one dealbreaker aspect may be the better use of Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), using his transportation abilities and versatile tail to do a surprising amount of damage. Hey, if he can’t get any meaningful arc, he may as well get in on the action.
It’s a real shame that the X-Men prequel legacy ends with a disappointment similar to The Last Stand when it should have taken a bolder exit in the vein of Logan. Perhaps the X-Men will be better reborn in the new era of Marvel Studios taking over the franchise, allowing for a brighter film to rise from these ashes. Maybe then a stronger female-centered story can soar rather than feeling like dry business as usual for the superhero ensemble.